The Story of Huckleberry Farm

The Black Walnut

Posted by Deborah on February 18, 2012


When we first took possession of this place it was terribly overgrown.  Large, leafy, generic flora crawled ploddingly over the land.  Normal garden shrubs had grown to enormous proportions.  There was a Viburnum davidii that covered an area the size of four pickup trucks side by side.  A mystery plant, identified by someone as a “Mexican wedding bush”, twiggy, with very small leaves,  created a barricade fifteen feet wide and ten feet tall and ten feet deep between the parking area and the upper field at the edge of the woods.  It took me a while to identify the sculptured tree-like shrubs that grew out of old fallen trees as mature, or rather, ancient ivy.  The septic tank and its concrete cover lay yards deep beneath a web of vicious dried blood colored blackberry canes the thickness of a cat’s foreleg.  Buddleia, or benignly named Butterfly Bush, the sale of which is now outlawed in this state, congregates in dense self protective groups all over the property.  It has thrived so well, that when in flower the heads are as long as my forearm and droop heavily like laden Chinese paintbrushes dipped in white and rich violet.   English laurel has also laid claim in large colonies, starving the earth wherever its long tentacle roots penetrates and its evergreen density blocks the sunlight.  Some of the trunks inside the laurel “hedges” were a foot and more in diameter and the tops reached thirty feet.  We had an excavator remove 108 cubic yards (that’s four 27 cu. yd. dumpsters) of the stuff from in front of our house revealing a section of bay and ocean view we had not known we had. And that is just a drop in the backhoe bucket.

There are more examples of rampant vegetative domination we’ve discovered here with which we will obviously have to contend in the coming years.  The holly and the ivy are probably our most stout adversaries but as we battle these, and other humanly introduced invaders, there are a few foreigners we want to save. 


There are stunningly beautiful, old and gnarled rhododendrons in danger of being absorbed in some horror-film manner by bamboo and cotoneaster, sweet rambling roses hopelessly entangled with blackberry vines, a statuesque cherry tree, crowded out by volunteer hollies infested with ivy.  As we clear areas we discover more isolated and struggling beauties as well as the contour of the land and the vistas that open. 

One of the first captives we liberated was the hulking and mysterious black walnut that is rooted like a sentinel at the base of a steep conifer encamped bank on the pathway to the creek.  We see its striking form from the south windows of the house.  Its canopy spans forty or fifty feet and its height is almost equal to that. In winter it is a bleached skeleton, stark and eerie against the dark backdrop of the woods.  In summer it is a lush green bower, branches waving above our little pond, inviting a rest in the shade.  In fall it ignites in brilliant yellow leafery.    It was hard to miss, even through the densely interwoven screen of shrubs, grasses, vines and struggling trees that lay between it and the view across the lower field from the house.  The tree is shaped like a torso with arms outstretched to the sky as if to receive some great descending bundle.  Because it backs up to a sunless north facing hill, it is almost two dimensional, spreading widely, but not deeply.  Under our first gaze in late summer it blended into the background, was just another very leafy, oversized presence on the property but with eye-squinting puzzlement it became clear that it looked this way because it had a thirty or forty foot alder tree horizontally balanced across its center, bisecting it, the alder’s dead branches pointing out and downward appearing to belong to the walnut.  It was a tangled, precarious mess of gigantic proportion which had to be dealt with.  This Amazonian scale teeter-totter was poised above where we planned to run our household water pipes to and from the creek.  Heavy sigh.  What to do?


A day came at the end of January 2010 when Carl felt able to tackle this seriously dangerous task of removing the alder from the walnut.  It had struck us while pondering the problem that it might be possible to lighten one end by cutting the branches that were within reach, thus allowing the heavier trunk end to swing down to ground level.   Without a better plan, this is how Carl proceeded.


Donning a hard hat seemed like wielding a papier mache shield in battle. Carl is careful though not easily intimidated. 


At that time we had a small, underpowered chainsaw that took a lot of endurance to use.  Carl cautiously reached from beneath the walnut trunk so it could guard him from unexpected falling branches.  After cutting his way through what he could reach, the top of the alder getting lighter and lighter, he was rewarded with a creaking shift in weight and the alder tree tipped in slow motion, its butt end hitting the ground with a heavy thud on the opposite side of the black walnut.


The remaining trunk was still enormous and dangerously placed, but the theory had worked so Carl cut the end that was now touching the ground. Low and behold, after another big groundshaking drop of timber, the upper segment lifted away from the saw cut, swayed up and slipped down the other side to an almost upright position against what one can only  imagine to be a relieved walnut tree.


By this time, Carl had had enough excitement and tension to last a while and so the comparatively small remainder would wait for another day. 

Since then the place has changed a lot.  The dumps have been removed (another story yet to come), areas have been cleared and mowed, ivy has been girdled on many trees and in dying is leaving massive brown weavings dangling from the tallest trees. In the landscape they are unsightly curiosities, but they make me smile whenever I glance out the windows and see that evidence of our labors and commitment to this place.



Posted by Deborah on February 8, 2012


In Manzanita, the quaint beach town about six miles north of our place, there is a yarn store on the main street.  I’m not a shopper, and confess to not really knowing what most of the merchants in Manzanita have to offer.  Except for the bakery, the grocery and the bookstore, I’m just not curious about the other shopping opportunities.  Perhaps I’m afraid of temptation, but apparently I wasn’t afraid enough to not wander into the yarn store.  I went in there one day, almost two years ago, in my mud covered clothing, dirt under my fingernails, on a whim, after picking up some groceries at the Little Apple (the local market) across the street.  The wool was seductive.  I never ventured in again until this past fall when I asked the proprietress if I could have knitting lessons from her.  She said “no” and “come to the knitting nights and someone will help you”.  The wool had been gathering in my mind.  The week before Christmas I nervously drove the six miles in the rainy dark to my first knitting night.  And this is why I’m now painting sheep.

People ask me “What do you paint”?  It’s a difficult question to answer and mostly I deflect and rattle off a list of subjects.   What does one paint?  It is of course the frightening question that steams in an artist’s mind whenever faced with a future exhibition.  What will I paint?  (heavy sigh)  I’ve titled my upcoming show at Waterstone “Portraits of a Place” and I made a list of subjects a few months ago based on this idea.  At the time I didn’t know I would be painting sheep.  But I hadn’t yet met Sage Walden and Brian Tallman, or had I bottle fed a lamb.  It seems my life is the well of subjects that I’m always worried about not knowing, not finding.  It’s all there right in front of me all the time. 


So Sage is a knitter, and a spinner of wool . She is usually at the knit nights imparting her considerable knowledge on the subject and sharing stories.  It’s a cozy, relaxed scene and the women who come converse with heads bent to their hands, concentrating on stitches, rambling from needle sizes to recent events in the world and in their lives. Sage and Brian have a sheep and cattle farm up the Nehalem Valley.  About three or four weeks ago the lambs started coming and Sage invited me to come out to see what that was like.  The old “farmer-wanna-be” in me sniffed heaven and Carl and I took her up on the invitation one morning.  We were immediately enlisted to gather lambs, bottle feed the scrawny ones, give water to the moms.  We met Mrs. Hen, Albert the calf and Archie, the shepherd.  As I gazed out across the fields, misty mountains in the background, sheep dotting the green pastures I saw the paintings that my great-grandfather, Willem Steelink, made his living and reputation by—sheep, bucolic and outlined by sunlight, peacefully nipping at green blades of grass.  It was bemusing.   Does everything eventually come down to genes?    Is there an inherited vision?  Who knows?  I just knew it was time to paint sheep. 


So there might be a portrait of a sheep or two in this upcoming show.



Posted by Deborah on January 20, 2012


There’s a lot of weather at the Oregon Coast.  In December we had nearly a month long period of dry sunny days, crisp and cold, an unusually uplifting experience during an often dismal time of year.  Last week it snowed on the beach, another oddity, and in its brevity, also uplifting and strangely beautiful.  Now it’s very windy, and parts of the coast have received record rains.  Our creek, which is our source of household water, is muddy from scouring its banks after running relatively low for the past couple of months. Our taps run tea-colored.  We are affected directly by the weather here every day.  We have no central heating, no furnace, no forced air. This is a good thing when not uncommon gale force winds blow down the power lines.  We heat with wood, which there's plenty of but this time of year the wood is damp even when it’s dry.  When the temperatures are freezing outside, the edges of the house inside are cold, we wear more clothing, sometimes a hat indoors.  With a little portable heater the studio can maintain a temperature of around 58 degrees when it’s in the 30’s outside.  Pretty comfortable, with the right clothes.  But it takes forever for oil paint to dry! 

detail from a painting in progress

I have a number, I think nine paintings started.  Two are commissions and the rest are intended for my show in May.  My work has always been mostly autobiographical and this group of paintings is no different.  The subjects come from this place, where all the people and the creatures and the plants that live here are subjects of the Weather.  And now these paintings too are subjects of the weather, and subject to the weather and their progress is dependent on it.  Who knew modern"climate control" was an art material. Depending on the amount of rain, the temperature or the sun pouring through the south facing windows of the studio it can take a week or more for one layer of my many layered pieces to dry.  It means that I have to suspend my momentum, move to another piece, calculate which one will dry when, so that I can make continuous progress, not missing a chance to work.  The deadline always looms.  It can be frustrating, but it also defines the contemplative nature of oil paint.  While a piece dries in its developing stages, I look at it over and over again in its unfinished state.  Each stage has its own completeness and time allows me to contemplate its possible wholeness, or its misdirection. What started out as an idea, then a picture in my head, then a sketch made from various resource materials, takes on a new identity in oil paint, governed by the mysterious qualities of ground pigment and linseed oil.  It is as though the paint is the weather that floods the idea,  that snows on the imagined, and blows away the sketch. 

Tonight it’s warm, the fire in the woodstove is hardly needed, but the wind blows and the creek is rising.  What will the weather bring tomorrow?

detail from a painting in progress

A Bigger Canvas

Posted by Deborah on January 11, 2012



Things are different here.  Since closing the door on my old studio in Tigard, Oregon on July 30th, 2011, I’ve spent a certain amount of time in the past six months reviewing my connection with that place and its influence on my work.  I admit to uncovering a certain fear that my life’s work was born in that place and was determined to reside there forever.  When we moved permanently and there was temporarily no studio to move to, no place to work, I suffered a simmering anxiety, not quite panic, that I would never work again.  I even considered this as an option, perhaps a positive one, where my life would open up to new horizons of learning and skill.  There is so much to do here that is wonderful.  The property, all four and a half acres of which is sorely in need of a caring hand and long-term vision, calls to me daily. I look from my bedroom window each morning, see the broken branches of fallen trees littering the lovely field above the house, the tangled overgrown shrubs, the views into the woods blocked by unnaturally verdant walls of ivy covered trees and I itch to get outside to deal with it once and for all. While making my morning coffee I gaze from the kitchen window down to where flowers once filled the field in the days when the Dickies sold “arrangements” from the dilapidated flower stand at the bottom of our driveway. I dream of clearing that field of the giant horsetail that now chokes the entire area and planting flowers, reinstituting the flower stand.  Carl and I joke about “Flowers, five dollars, holly, five dollars, videos, five dollars, paintings five dollars…”  There is the vegetable garden, or the beginning of one, to fence and then to plant, and then to harvest.  There are trees to fell for firewood to keep us warm.  There are trees to plant in their place. There are animals that live here, share our land and make their presence known daily, and mysteriously.  The Elk, the Deer, the Eagles and the Owls, the Chipmunks, Raccoons, Coyotes, Rabbits, Rats and Mice. There are many we don’t know yet.  There is the Bay and the Sky, both always present, always changing.  There is the Dawn and the Dusk, the Moon and the Rain.  We are not alone here. 

In the suburbs where I lived before, I was much more alone.  My world by choice consisted of a 90’ x 90’ lot with a cozy home and spacious studio, embraced by a secluded garden atop stone walls edged by vines and trees.  It was a small, richly dense place, self-contained, distanced from the surrounding neighborhood by tall fences and private sensibilities.  It was a place to work, to concentrate, to escape and ignore the stuff outside the fence.  It was an island life. 

Here we are at the edge of a continent.  Everything is big, limitless.  Everything grows fast and enormously. Everything is strong, from the winds and the rains to the trees and the tides.  One does not escape here.  One confronts everything here.  One cannot ignore the powers of Nature, or the fragility of life.  These things are outside my windows, under my feet as we uncover our land, and in the air that expands all the way to the Milky Way at night when we walk down to close the gate at the end of our gravel drive. 


I’m working again, in my new “temporary” studio.  I have paintings started.  It wasn’t true that I would never work again.  But things are different here.  It’s bigger here.  There is more to do, more to care about, more to learn and more to create, not just on wood or canvas, but in space and time. 

“We all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.”  Oscar Wilde




Living in a Work in Progress

Posted by Deborah on December 28, 2011


On July 31st of this year, Carl and I moved to Huckleberry Farm for good.  After nearly two years of almost weekly trips to and from the coast we had finally run out of time, money and energy for the bisected life we'd been living.  Unable to sell our house in Tigard, victims of the real estate debacle that seems to be gripping the nation, we rented it instead.  We found good tenants easily and suddenly within a couple of weeks we were packing up and moving.  We still didn't have a fully complemented bathroom at the farm, nor a finished space for my studio to move to, but it was definitely time to make the leap.  As we've settled in the house has become more civilized with pictures on the walls, a washing machine, curtains, books and even a shower.  

After the effort of moving, our plans to begin work on the south foundation and basement studio space seemed monumentally exhausting and foolhardy as the inevitable sea driven rains approached.  We backed up from that plan, re-examining our needs and concluded that the effort to finish the shop addition to use as a temporary studio through the winter was manageable.  I began my first painting in that space this October 10th, but the construction of it actually began on August 24th, 2010.  That's when Norm Hartwell came with his excavator to take away the old woodshed.


We'd already removed the plate glass sheets that served as windows and pried out the more stubborn bits of infrastructure so all Norm had to do was fold it up and put it into our truck bed.



Easy as pie.  The next part was harder.  We had to design a workshop addition that could fit into the contour of the land at the back of the house, serve as a strengthening bulwark to the compromised south foundation,  be something Carl and I could build ourselves and look good too.Sept-6-2010.jpg

More excavation and then building forms, pouring concrete and having friends come to help strip the forms on a very rainy September day.


Then on top of the footings Carl built more forms for the stem walls.  We had mostly good weather through this period of October and we had help from Conor McGrath a local second generation framer and know-it-all.


By the end of October, 2010 we had the walls up but that's about as far as we got when the weather changed and getting over the Coast Range became more challenging, not to mention the flooding rains that persisted through the winter.




The poor walls stood out in the rain, swelling and absorbing all the winter.  There wasn't much we could do except build the trusses--indoors.  Spending most of our time in Portland Carl devised a way to "prefabricate" parts of them there, and then we transported the pieces to the farm and in February he and I nailed them together--twelve beautiful trusses stacked on the floor of the basement awaiting a day of dry weather to install.


It was mid-March when that day came. Daffodils were blooming and the promise of a roof was close at hand.Mar-18-2011.jpg

Just as the sheathing was finished the rains returned and the roof was shrouded in the ugly blue that designates incompletion and poor function.  We looked upon this for another month .Mar-21-2011.jpg

By the end of April we were able to tackle the interior.  The floor was to eventually encase pipes of hot water for a hydronic heating system.  Carl had it all researched, talked to inspectors and  we were ready to go.  We shoveled a couple of pickup loads of gravel into the building and then borrowed a big old vibrating machine from our excavator friend Norm to tamp down the gravel and make it ready for the pipes.




Although we've been committed by both constitution and necessity to do all the work ourselves there are a few things best left to experts.  Concrete is one of them, along with sheetrock finishing and wood floor finishing.  This was the third time the concrete truck had grinded up the driveway since we'd owned the place.  Around here, the gravel guys are the same guys as the concrete guys and before we'd cleared the drive of its surrounding vegetation, they could barely make it up to the house. Legend has it that their side mirrors were torn off by the  massive english laurel branches that encroached on the narrow passage up the drive during some past gravel delivery.  They were leary when we first called them, but by now they knew we wouldn't let them get stuck. We hired some great guys to float the concrete over the pipes.  It took them all day to carefully screen the concrete to a fine polished surface.  



Now progress was really being made.  Windows went in and the big doors we'd found at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore were painted and installed.  It was an enclosed space.  It was May. May-28-2011-2.jpg


The space stayed like that for several months awaiting our permanent move to the house.  It wasn't until we were living here full time and the urgency of having a studio to work in made it an imperative to make the space habitable.  It still needed sheetrock and wiring and painting, all the prosaic and tedious additions that give a space the things we expect from shelter.  Light and color and warmth.  Finally, in October I started my first painting in this space, and there are more to come over the next few months. October-10-2011.jpg

But the real studio is still to be built.  This space will be a workshop, where panels are built, where tools are fixed, where garden fences are shaped, where the messy and practical work of life and art takes place.  The studio in the basement is the next project.  This one took a year.  Who knows how long the next one will take?